Can You Trust Your Senses?

How much can we trust our physical senses of sight, hearing, or touch? In this brief clip, R.C. Sproul discusses Augustine’s teaching on the role and limits of sense perception in our pursuit of the truth.

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Now, Augustine was not ready to put sense perception at the highest level of certitude by any means. Nor was he prepared to simply jettison sense perception as a useless enterprise. He understood something fundamental to our humanity, and that is that our only transition, our only link to the world apart from our own interior minds, and our own thinking is our body. Our bodies are the links that we have with the external world. I have no way to get in touch with the external world except by either seeing it, hearing it, tasting it, touching it, or smelling it. So, I am dependent upon my senses to have any information coming to me from outside the interior chambers of my own mind. Now, if that vehicle of knowledge is completely untrustworthy, then of course I have no way of knowing for sure about anything outside of my own thinking. So, Augustine took a close look at that problem of sense perception. One of his famous illustrations was the illustration that was common to people in the ancient world, and one that I think all of us have experienced at one time or another. If you’ve ever been in a rowboat and you put the oar in the water, and you look—from the perspective of sitting there in the rowboat—you look at the oar, of course you can see the handle of the oar until it goes into the water. But if the sky is bright and the water is clear enough, you can then see further down into the water and see the end of the oar. But from your vantage point it looks like once the oar hits the water, it bends. Do you recall that kind of sensation? From the vantage point of being out of the water, you put the oar in the water, and from where you are sitting, you look and the blade of the oar is bent away from you. So, looking at that you would say, “I have a bent oar in my hands.” Is the oar really bent? Or is this an illusion caused by the water and the light and all of that? Well, if it is an illusion, and if such illusions are part of our daily experience of perception, how do we know that all of our perceptions are not illusions? Augustine made a very simple distinction here, but it is one that is very important, not just at a theoretical level, but at a practical level. He said, “I may be wrong about what the oar is actually doing. But I still can be confident that I am perceiving the oar as being bent.” That is, the content of my perception may not be perfectly accurate, but I can still know that I am having the perception, and that I am perceiving that the oar is bent.


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